The overall divorce rate in the U.S. might be declining but the rate for midlife divorce is increasing. So what’s causing the increase in gray divorce and how could it hurt you?
My guest for this latest Conversations About Divorce is Jocelyn Elise Crowley, author of Gray Divorce: What We Lose And Gain From Mid-Life Splits. Jocelyn and I chat about what’s driving the increase in mid-life divorce, the social penalty that men experience and the economic penalty women experience.
If you’re headed for a gray divorce, you don’t want to miss this. Listen in below or keep reading to find out what to expect and what you can do now to help yourself overcome the challenges you’re certain to face.
What Is A Gray Divorce?
Don’t panic, a gray divorce isn’t like the dark web. It’s not referring to something that is shady or questionable but simply when one spouse is aged 50 or older.
As I said above, the overall divorce rate in the U.S. over the past couple of decades has stabilized and even declined for some age groups but for people aged 50 or more the divorce rate has doubled so that now one in every four divorces is a gray divorce.
Crowley shared that in 2010 there were over 600,000 individuals who went through a gray divorce and by 2030 that number is expected to increase to over 800,000. With these sort of numbers, we can expect mid-life divorces to have a dramatic impact on our society.
Why Gray Divorce Now?
Crowley sees four reasons for the increase in mid-life divorce. The first is simply due to numbers, the aging of the baby boomer generation. In 2000 there were about 99 million Americans aged 50 and older. By 2050 that number is expected to be more than 160 million. So there are going to be more and more people aged more than 50 and that simply translates into more divorces. It is as simple as that.
The second reason is that we’ve seen rapid increases in life expectancy. In 1950, the average man could expect to live to about 66 years old and the average woman to 71. Now, that expectation is 76 years for men and 81 years for women. With longer life expectancy we expect to see more divorces at the older ages.
Now, when you reach your 50’s you can still expect to live another twenty or thirty years. So when you look at your life and analyze it, that gives you a very different perspective from when you have a much shorter life expectancy. When you can reasonably expect to live for another twenty years, your current living situation may seem intolerable.
Thirdly, the stigma of divorce has declined over the past couple of decades. For our parents and grandparents generations, divorce was so negative culturally that many people wouldn’t consider it. These days, ending a marriage is very common and quite accepted culturally.
The other factor that is playing into what makes mid-life divorce possible is that the process of getting divorced now is easier than it was because all fifty states now have no-fault divorce laws. That doesn’t mean that getting divorced is emotionally easy or that people make the decision lightly.
“Getting a gray divorce for the majority of people I spoke with was really serious and heart wrenching,” said Crowley. “Many of the couples in my study had been married twenty, thirty, forty years so this was not something that they took lightly. They took their marital vows very, very strongly and seriously and only after a severe relationship stressor or a period of stress did they decide to divorce.”
We Still Believe In Marriage
Through her studies, Crowley has found that even though there is an increase in mid-life divorce, marriage is still valued. People are not saying that they’re just going to live together or they’re going to be partners without getting married. “Marriage is still upheld as the really important symbol of commitment in the United States,” said Crowley.
The Reasons For A Mid-life Divorce
Through her research Crowley recognized that the reasons men choose a mid-life divorce tend to be quite different from the reasons women made the choice.
“Men tended to get or become disillusioned with the marriage due to the way thing were being run in the marriage,” said Crowley. “They didn’t like the way money was managed or they had grave reservations about the way their children were disciplined.”
Women were much more likely to talk about their husband’s addictions and also the verbal and emotional abuse. “Ultimately, they decided that they didn’t want to put up with it,” said Crowley.
The Social Penalty For Men
Just as men and women had different reasons for divorce, they also experienced very different consequences.
For men, the most common result was what Crowley calls a social penalty. She found that the men in her study had relied on their wives to do the majority of the childcare as well as maintaining relationships with other couples and family members.
“When they go through a divorce suddenly they wake up and they no longer have their wives making social connections,” said Crowley.
The male respondents reported that many of the adult figures in their lives aligned with their wife in the divorce and this also happened with adult children. “This was quite heartbreaking for a lot of the men,” said Crowley.
On a positive note, the men did report that over time they were able to build stronger relationships with their children but it took time and it was very difficult.
Crowley recommends that fathers do go out and seek mental health services or psychological services to help them through the divorce and not to leave it too late.
“In many cases, talking to me for the book was the first time that they had ever talked about the devastation in their lives,” said Crowley.
Finding support groups is challenging. Many of the support groups for men are offered through churches which isn’t a good fit for many people. Other support groups rarely focus solely on men and are even less likely to cater for the aged 50 and over group. To the extent that there are government funded programs to assist men in building good relationships with their children, most programs are directed to low income men with minor children.
The caution here for men is to be actively involved in parenting throughout the marriage and also to play an active role in the social planning. This may even help to improve the marriage.
The Economic Penalty For Women
Women may not experience the social penalty that men face but they often face an economic penalty that comes with having taken time out of the workforce to raise children.
“When they do ultimately go back to work, they find themselves behind the men who had stayed steadily employed,” said Crowley. They may not have kept up their skill level. Wage discrimination also factors into this.
What compounds this is that while they are out of the workforce, women are often not contributing to savings or retirement saving or the Social Security system.
“As a result of all these factors, when women go through a gray divorce they find themselves in an economically precarious situation,” said Crowley. They don’t have the savings they need. They don’t have the work they need. And they definitely have a lot less retirement and social security contributions.”
While the courts may divide retirement assets as part of the divorce settlement, Crowley says this doesn’t eliminate the economic penalty.
“It’s never going to help with the loss of income they had while being a stay-at-home parent,” said Crowley. “The salary is probably unlikely to ever get to the level where it could have been if they had stayed in the workforce.”
Crowley also points out that in the U.S. the average woman will take about $14,000 a year in social security benefits while men take on average $18,000 per year.
Crowley isn’t advocating that people shouldn’t stay at home to parent their children but what she would like to see is greater equality between men and women. In the U.S. men take very little time off when a child is born. “I would like see more equality in terms of child care in the first couple of years of a child’s life so that women don’t necessarily fall far behind men when it comes to earning money and ultimately saving money for their older years,” Crowley said.
One recent change that has helped women is the Affordable Care Act which makes the loss of health insurance coverage that often happens as a result of divorce, a qualifying event and has made it much easier for people getting divorced to get individual health insurance coverage.
“Interestingly, a lot of research has shown that women stay in bad marriages due to their health and due to their husband’s health care coverage,” said Crowley. “The Affordable Care Act is a positive sign for women that they have more options and that they don’t feel tied to a bad marriage because of health insurance policy.”
Is It Worth It?
Given the social penalty and the economic penalty I asked Crowley if any of her study participants expressed remorse or regret for their decision. Crowley responded that while a few did say that if they had known the loneliness that they would experience after divorce that they would have fought a little harder for their marriage, the overwhelming majority of both men and women talked positively about the upside of gray divorce.
The positives they expressed included the financial freedom to be make spending decisions and the independence of not being tied to a person who was not necessarily good for them.
Most of the respondents had a positive outlook, relieved that they were not going to be devastated for the rest of their lives. They saw themselves moving forward and were looking forward to new opportunities.
Reading all this might have you feeling overwhelmed or second-guessing yourself. That’s not surprising. This is a major change. Talking through your situation with a licensed therapist or counselor, like the ones at BetterHelp.com, might help you get the clarity and reassurance you need.
My guest for this Conversation was Jocelyn Elise Crowley, Ph.D, professor of Public Policy at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Crowley’s latest book is Gray Divorce: What We Lose And Gain From Mid-Life Splits.
Disclosure: I am an affiliate of BetterHelp which means that if you use their service I may receive a small affiliate commission at no additional cost to you.